Editorial: Step up efforts to prevent opioid abuse

The opioid death rate in Kansas has quadrupled in the past 16 years. It’s time to take action.

Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer was right to create a task force to study opioid addiction and make recommendations for ways to address the issue.

Although the opioid addiction crisis is more extreme in other parts of the country, the statistics in Kansas are alarming. In signing an executive order creating the task force, Colyer cited statistics showing that opioid deaths in Kansas totaled 35 in 2000 but had climbed to 159 by 2016. That equates to a quadrupling of the per capita opioid death rate, from 1.3 deaths per 100,000 people to 5.5 deaths per 100,000 people.

Overall, Kansas ranks just 45th out of 50 state in its drug overdose rate of 11.3 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But Kansas need look no further than neighboring Missouri, 23.6 overdose deaths per 100,000 people, and Oklahoma, 21.5 deaths per 100,000 people, for the toll the opioid crisis can take.

“I have had patients die,” said Colyer, a plastic surgeon. “I have seen people have their lives ruined. And I’ve also seen them recover as well.”

There has been extensive research into the opioid crisis, and it is clear that a two-pronged approach is needed — one that focuses on increased funding for treatment of those suffering from addiction and another that focuses on legislation that appropriately limits the flow of opioids, including prescription medications sold legally as well as those like heroin that are sold illegally.

It is well documented that the roots of the current opioid crisis began in the 1990s when physicians — encouraged and often incentivized by pharmaceutical companies — increased the use of prescription opioids to manage patient pain. Prescription painkillers such as oxycontin and vicodin became commonplace in households, creating easy access to opioids for a generation of teenagers.

Those who develop an addiction to prescription painkillers often eventually move on to heroin and synthetic fentanyl, drugs that rose in availability and dropped in price as the prescription drug epidemic increased. A 2014 Journal of American Medical Association study showed that 75 percent of heroin addicts in treatment started with prescription painkillers.

“One of the things that is happening in other states is that as the prescription use has changed, it is being substituted by heroin,” Colyer said. “So we need law enforcement and everybody involved in this. This is not a simple question.”

The task force will be chaired by Dr. Jeff Lakin, the state’s chief medical officer and a former Republican state lawmaker from Wichita, and will include members from the Department of Corrections, Department for Children and Families, the Department for Aging and Disability Services and several other agencies, as well as people appointed by lawmakers from both parties.

Given that Kansas’ opioid death rate has quadrupled in 16 years, it is hard to imagine things could be worse, but the stories from around the nation show otherwise. The creation of a task force to study and recommend solutions is the minimum the state should be doing.